You're waiting for a bus in downtown Seattle. The street hustler is talking loudly on his cell phone. The bag lady is mumbling to herself. The empty bottle lies on the pavement. The trash blows up against the bus shelter. If you were to lean against the nearby building, you'd have to wash your clothes. If you were to sit in the shelter, you'd have to inhale the cigarette smoke. If it's getting dark, you may remember the homeless guy who got shot at a bus stop by Benaroya Hall in January, or the Tuba Man's fatal beating near a bus stop close to Seattle Center.
The experience will be different on July 18, when Sound Transit opens its sleek new light rail service from downtown Seattle to Tukwila. (You always wanted to go to Tukwila, didn't you?) You won't have to wait at a grungy stop. You won't have to climb stairs to get on or off. You won't have to share waiting space or seats with drunks or mumblers.
Under the circumstances, won't the Metro bus system be the ugly stepchild of public transportation? Of course. “Buses will always be the ugly stepchild,” former King County Executive Ron Sims told me, shortly before he resigned to become Obama's Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “But they're necessary.”
Indeed, while slick light rail and cute streetcars stir the imagination, buses represent both the present and future of mass transportation in the Seattle area. Sound Transit expects its Link light rail trains to carry 26,000 passengers each weekday by the end of next year. In 2007, on an average weekday, Metro carried 365,000.
So here we are, blowing hot air about our commitment to halting climate change, preserving green space, and saving the Sound — all of which require increased use of public transportation — and here Metro is facing a $168-million revenue shortfall over the next two years. Is there a little disconnect?
Metro and other Washington transit agencies get .9 percent from the sales tax. Historically, King County (which operates Metro) has watched sales tax revenues go up 5.5 percent a year, the figure Metro has used for planning purposes. But times have changed. This year, sales tax revenues have declined 6 percent. In 2010, they're expected to rise again, but less than 1 percent. In 2011, they're expected to rise less than 2 percent. As a result, the agency projects a revenue gap of $74 million next year and a $94-million gap in 2011.
By the time sales tax revenue resumes its “normal” rate of increase (assuming that eventually happens) the system will be standing in a deep hole. Metro can't raise fares much without driving away riders. The system has relied on fare increases to keep pace with inflation, but it didn't raise fares at all from 2002 to 2007. Last year and this year saw 25-cent increases, and next year will see another one. Each 25 cents brings in another $10-12 million in annual revenue. But “raising fares during an economic recession is not a good thing to do,” says Metro general manager Kevin Desmond. “There's a point at which you reach diminishing returns.”
The situation could easily have been even worse. Without manna from Washington, the two-year deficit would have been $218 million. Metro is getting some $71 million in federal stimulus money, $50 million of which can shoveled into the revenue gap. The stimulus package “came just in the nick of time,” Desmond says.“
It may be, as Tolstoy wrote, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but public transit agencies are all financially unhappy in much the same way. “Every transit agency in the country” is in the same boat, Sims said.
The boat is big enough for New York subways, too. After a long-running battle in Albany, the New York legislature has finally passed a bailout for the metropolitan area's MTA transit system. The agency went hat in hand to the legislature, hoping for funds that would plug the gap between operating expenses and tax shortfalls in a dismal economy. The legislature, which had budget problems of its own, didn't exactly hurry to help. Faced with a demand to bail out public transportation in the big city, upstate legislators replied: How about the roads and bridges on which their own constituents rely? The upshot was a big zero.
The MTA was getting ready for a 30-percent fare hike on June 1. Then the legislature finally came through — deferring some decisions but averting the worst for the coming year. Fares will go up only a quarter. The legislature has made up the difference with a 12-county payroll tax, an increase in vehicle registration fees, and a 50-cent-per-ride taxi surcharge.
Metro should be so lucky. This year's Washington legislature actually passed a major transportation package, but “transportation” basically meant “roads.” The legislature didn't give Metro any state money, but it did give the King County Council and King County voters the tools to narrow, if not close, the gap between revenues and expenditures. The County Council can decide without a vote of the people to use 7.5 cents per $1,000 of property tax for transportation, 1 cent for transit improvements on the new 520 bridge and 6.5 cents for transit. (The 75 cents per $1,000 that the County was authorized to collect for the new ferry district — you may have forgotten that King County was now in the ferry business — was reduced to 7.5 cents.) And if the Council puts it on the ballot, the people can vote to pay another $20 a year for their vehicle license tabs, with all that new money going to transit.
This is no panacea. At best, even if people vote “yes” on license tabs (and Tim Eyman doesn't smack it down), this will ease but not solve Metro's budget problems. The license fee boost could raise $31 million, the property tax $25 million. The combined $55 million a year would obviously fall short of the projected $74 million and $94 million projected deficits. Financially, Desmond says, “the gap between expectations and reality keeps getting wider.”
Why can't the state do more? Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown talks about the barriers posed by Initiative 960, which requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature (or a vote of the people) for any tax increase, and the 18th amendment to the state constitution, which says the state can spend gas tax money only on highways. (There's a ringing constitutional principle for you.) As King County Councilman Dow Constantine, one of the people who wants to succeed Sims, puts it: “the state Transportation Department is the highway department.” As a result, “each local government is being asked to raise money to run the buses.”
Brown says that in 2011, the legislature will have to pass something that puts more resources into transit. Sims won't hold his breath. He said he didn't expect the legislature to bail Metro out this year or later. “Would I like the state to help?” he asked. “Yes.” Did he expect it? Not really. However, he doesn't see Metro's financial problems as long-term, but rather as an artifact of the current economy. Ridership continues to rise — or did until the economy tanked. Now that the EPA has decided greenhouse gases are pollutants that may endanger the public health and welfare, Sims suggested, Clean Air Act regulations will eventually force Washington to invest more in transit.
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